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Now I know what my Dog's Thinking

Posted 4 years 363 days ago ago by Randy Mains

When operating an aircraft with the latest glass cockpit technology a common observation is: “Now I know what my dog’s thinking when he watches TV.”  There’s another common comment as well, “What’s it doing now?”

Lyn Burks, editor-in-chief of this magazine, recently attended Leonardo’s 169 Training Academy in Sesto Calende, Italy. (He shared his experience in the July/August issue.) Regarding the cockpit’s mostly all glass, haptic feedback and touch screens, he needed a full 20-minute period of instruction on the various types of virtual switches, knobs, and buttons and how to control them.  

When I flew at Abu Dhabi Aviation (ADA), the company took delivery of 12 AW139s, the slightly bigger brother to the 169.  One of the major complaints pilots transitioning into the aircraft was, paradoxically, loss of situational awareness.  

During their transition, the pilot not flying (PNF) was learning to program the flight management system (FMS) while the pilot flying (PF), also new to the FMS, closely monitored the PNF’s progress to ensure inputs were correct. The end result: no one was looking out the window.

In 1997, American Airlines instructor, Captain Warren VanderBurgh, talked about automation dependence in his ground school class entitled “Children of Magenta,” which can be found on YouTube. In the video, Captain VanderBurgh talks about automation dependency and judgment, that is knowing what level of technology to use for the task.  He suggests three levels of automation and how to keep out of trouble by choosing what level to use to avoid task saturation. He emphasizes pilots should select the appropriate level for the task, highlighting situations where pilots put so much dependence on automation the flight nearly ended in disaster.  

As the pilots at ADA experienced, he says the loss of situation awareness is frequently preceded by task saturation. Therefore, pilots should consider dropping down a notch in the level of automation to reduce workload in a changing environment.  Doing so lessens exposure to automation errors. He argues the culture must change from pushing pilots to operate at the highest levels of automation at all times.

VanderBurgh says the first level of automation is flying manually.  The second level is the use of an autopilot, but the pilot is using the flight guidance system to tell the autopilot what flight path they want the aircraft to follow for short periods of time. The third and highest level of automation is when the pilot engages the autopilot and uses the flight management computer or flight management system to tell the autopilot what to do for longer periods of time.

According to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System 2005, airline pilots voiced their concerns about automation in the cockpit leading to loss of situational awareness. Here are their comments:

“The pilot's role has become more supervisory and the requirement for direct control input is diminished or absent.”

“When automation functions reliably, as it does most of the time, it can induce pilots to be less alert in monitoring automation technology behavior.”

“Pilots may be out of the control loop and peripheral to the actual operation of the aircraft and therefore not prepared to assume control when necessary.”

“Low-time pilots flying advanced technology aircraft may not acquire manual flying skills, which are still required if they must take over.”

“Large amounts of information and/or poor formatting of information may increase pilot workload.”

“Failure to recover may be difficult. When automation fails, pilots may have difficulty taking over monitoring, decision-making, and control tasks. Unsafe conditions can happen when pilots may be reluctant to assume control.”

“Automation controls may be designed so they are difficult to access and activate quickly and accurately, or they may be too easy to activate inadvertently.”

“The pilot’s scan pattern may change because the pilot automation interface may be poorly designed with respect to human factors considerations (ergonomics), possibly resulting in poor pilot performance/dissatisfaction.”

“Automation may change modes without pilot commands; this can surprise or startle.”

“Pilots may lack confidence in automation due to past experience (or lack of experience) with it. This may result in a failure to use automation when it should be used.”

One comprehensive study on automation issues affecting pilots was coordinated and reported by Funk, Lyall, & Riley in 1995, Their study determined these issues affecting pilots:

Understanding:  Pilots may not understand the structure and function of automation or the interaction of automation devices well enough to perform their duties safely.

Situational awareness:  The behavior of automation devices, what they are doing now and what they will do in the future, based upon pilot input or other factors, may not be apparent to pilots. This may result in reduced pilot awareness of automation behavior and goals.

Complacency:  Pilots may become complacent because they are overly confident in the FMS and uncritical of automation. Such complacency leads to a failure to exercise appropriate vigilance, sometimes to the extent of abdicating responsibility.

Inappropriate usage:  Pilots may use automation in situations where it should not be used.

Complexity:  Automation may be too complex in that it may consist of many interrelated components and may operate under many different modes. This makes automation difficult for pilots to understand and use safely.

Surprise events:  Automation may perform in ways that are unintended by, unexpected to, and perhaps inexplicable to pilots, possibly creating confusion, increasing pilot workload to compensate, and sometimes leading to unsafe conditions.

Dissemination of information: Important information that could be displayed by automation is not displayed, thereby limiting the ability of pilots to make safe decisions and actions.

Advanced technology can be found in even in the most basic aircraft these days. Stay vigilant and monitor it closely. Maintain your situational awareness, and above all, know your systems. If you feel you’re becoming overwhelmed, drop down a notch.  Doing so will keep you in the loop and help you to avoid becoming task saturated. 


About the Author:
Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at [email protected]